Monday Motivation: The fine art of the (very) long sentence

 In Monday Motivation

I’m falling in love – with long sentences. I have come across a number in a novel called The Nix by Nathan Hill. (The New York Times said of Hill in its review of the novel that “the author seems incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence or spinning a boring story.) Well, I can attest to that.

At the risk of, well, not boring you, because I don’t think this sentence could bore anyone, here’s just one of them:

“Larry fucking  Broxton, skin as pale and sickly green as the inside of an old potato, pathetic attempts at a blond mustache and beard that looked more like his face was lightly crusted with panko bread crumbs, a kind of hunchiness and withdrawn, inward manner that for some reason reminded Samuel of a small fern that could only grow in the shade, Larry Broxton, who had never once spoken in class, whose feet had  outpaced the rest of his body, growth-spurt-wise, and had resulted in a kind of floppy walk, as if his feet were two large and flat river fish, feet on which he wore these chunky black sandal things that Samuel was pretty sure were designed for use only in public showers and pools, this same Larry Broxton who during the ten minutes Samuel gave to each class for ‘freewriting and brainstorming’ would idly and subconsciously and casually pick at his genitals, he could, almost every day, invariably, during their two-week  sitting-together period, on the way out of class, make Laura Pottsdam laugh.”

(“Panko bread crumbs”? Well, here’s what Mr G says of them: they’re bread crumbs with a light, flaky texture, typically used as a coating for fried or baked food in Japanese cooking.)

Now, that’s a sentence you could write a thesis about. It doesn’t seem to be entirely coherent – and I think that’s part of the point. (I think there’s a redundant “he” towards the end.) But it certainly tells us a great deal about the narrator, a failing professor of English at a small Mid-Western university who spends more time playing computer games than he does at his day job.

I suppose it’s not far off the sort of interior monologue I was writing about recently, the sort of word-gush that so distinguishes the new leader of the free world.

But it’s also full of perfectly observed detail – and that always makes me swoon. The pale and sickly green of the inside of an old potato… Broxton’s hunchiness… the fern that can only grow in the shade… the feet like large and flat river fish…

A little later, Laura Pottsdam, sitting opposite our narrator, pleading with him not to fail her for an outrageous piece of plagiarism is described thusly:

“Her shorts are so small that when she moves around in the leather chair the skin of her lower buttocks squeaks against it or pulls off with a moist little sucking sound.”

That’s so accurate that you wince.

Of course, long sentences in themselves are not superior to short sentences. Indeed, if you’re intent on steering a safe path through the thickets of unintelligibility, it’s without question wiser to go for pithy. But sometimes, every writer should relax their belts a notch or two, or unclip their bras, and… indulge.

In fact, one of my favourite writing coaches, John Gardner, in his The Art of Fiction, advises writers intent on improving their craft to “(w)rite three effective long sentences, each at least one full type page (or 250 words,) each involving a different emotion (for example, anger, pensiveness, sorrow, joy). Purpose: control of tone in a complex sentence.”

By comparison, Hill’s sentence that I quote is 174 words long. But don’t worry, later in The Nix, the NYT review tells me, I can expect to run into what is, they say, essentially an eleven-page sentence.

I can’t wait.

Happy writing,

Richard

 

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Showing 2 comments
  • Sandi
    Reply

    For some great long sentences read Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. This, one of his shorter long sentences from the short story ‘Nevsky Prospect’: “Here you come across moustaches so wonderful that neither pen nor brush can do justice to them, moustaches to which the best years of a lifetime have been devoted-the object of long hours of vigil by day and by night; moustaches upon which all the perfumes of Arabia have been lavished, the most exquisite scents and essences, and which have been anointed with the rarest and most precious pomades; moustaches which are wrapped up for the night in the most delicate vellum; moustaches for which their possessors show a most touching affection and which are the envy of all those who behold them.”

  • Richard
    Reply

    That’s a really lovely sentence, Sandi. Mustaches beg writers to be a little extravagent, don’t you think?

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